A parallel narrative: The UAE Pavilion and Aravena’s curatorial proposal Venice Biennale 2016

 

The prevalent urban image of the UAE celebrates it as a forerunner in the race of defying vertical boundaries, testing technological limits and employing luxury as a substitute of the everyday. Prescribed a seemingly categorical and futuristic agenda, the National Pavilion of UAE opts to nuance this perception by showcasing a parallel narrative of progressive leadership and social responsibility as the subject of its exhibition at the 15th International Architecture Exhibition of la Biennale di Venezia.

“In his trip to South America Bruce Chatwin encountered an old lady walking the desert carrying an aluminum ladder on her shoulder. It was German archeologist Maria Reiche studying the Nazca lines. Standing on the ground, the stones did not make any sense; they were just random gravel. But from the height of the stair those stones became a bird, a jaguar, a tree or a flower. We would like the Biennale Architettura 2016 to offer a new point of view like the one Maria Reiche has on the ladder. Given the complexity and variety of challenges that architecture has to respond to, REPORTING FROM THE FRONT will be about listening to those that were able to gain some perspective and consequently are in the position to share some knowledge and experiences with those of us standing on the ground. We believe that the advancement of architecture is not a goal in itself but a way to improve people’s quality of life.”

Alejandro Aravena

Alejandro Aravena received the Pritzker Architecture Prize earlier this year as much for his powerful architectural portfolio, as for espousing a commitment to public interest and social impact. His “Do Tank” Elemental  champions a participatory design process, and an innovative approach called “incremental housing”- a social housing design strategy also termed “half of a good house” in which design leaves space for residents to complete their houses in an effort to lower costs and offer users a sense of accomplishment and personal investment¹.

93 Incremental Houses Complex. Image Courtesy www.elementalchile.cl

Within the context of Aravena’s stand on architecture as a tool for improving living standards, commitment to creating flexible residential systems and the essence of his curatorial proposal “Reporting from the front”; there are strong parallels to be drawn with the theme for this year’s UAE National Pavilion curated by Yasser Elshestawy, Associate Professor of Architecture at the UAE University and a noted expert on regional architecture and urban planning.

‘Transformations: The Emirati National House’ will present insights into the transformative process of individualization of national houses. The exhibition explores the adaptable nature of this housing model, also known as sha‘bī (folk) houses, introduced across the UAE from the 1970s to offer homes and modern amenities to a fairly transient population living in traditional houses made of arish (palm fronds) and tents made from camel hair. Headlines from newspapers at the time highlighted the notion that they were a gift to the nation from founding president and former ruler of Abu Dhabi, the late Sheikh Zayed².

Aerial views of Abu Dhabi island showing the palm frond houses (arish), which were prevalent at the time and are considered a precursor to the sha‘bī house (1962). Image courtesy British Petroleum Archive, University of Warwick.
Aerial views of Abu Dhabi island showing the palm frond houses (arish), which were prevalent at the time and are considered a precursor to the sha‘bī house (1962). Image courtesy British Petroleum Archive, University of Warwick.
The image demonstrates the harsh and basic conditions of life in these settlements and offer a stark contrast to subsequent developments (1960s). Image courtesy British Petroleum Archive, University of Warwick.
The image demonstrates the harsh and basic conditions of life in these settlements and offer a stark contrast to subsequent developments (1960s). Image courtesy British Petroleum Archive, University of Warwick.

“The exhibition offers us the opportunity to share a lesser-known aspect of our nation’s architecture at one of the world’s most prominent architecture events,” says Khulood Al Atiyat, Manager of Arts, Culture and Heritage, Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation. “In line with the Foundation’s mission to invest in the future of the UAE by investing in its people, we are particularly pleased that this year’s exhibition will focus on the everyday spaces of the UAE’s citizens, developing a new angle of architectural discourse about our country.”

One of the earliest prefabricated national house prototypes designed by German architects Braun & Saeckl (1974). Image courtesy Juergen Monnerjahn.
One of the earliest prefabricated national house prototypes designed by German architects Braun & Saeckl (1974). Image courtesy Juergen Monnerjahn.

National houses are found in residential neighborhoods of most cities in the UAE. The standard housing typology is composed of a series of rooms overlooking a central square courtyard. The houses were initially designed as a standard model, but over the years, resident families made various architectural modifications to the basic structure, reflecting their changing lifestyles thus further resonating the adaptable and transformative conditions transcribed by Aravena’s work.

“The exhibition and accompanying publication will share a comprehensive overview of the National Housing project as an interesting architectural experiment where people are actively involved in constructing and modifying their built environment,” says Yasser Elsheshtawy. “We would like to highlight the sha‘bīyaa (folk) neighborhoods as an ongoing living testimony about the resilience of the Emirati people and the extent to which the house, with all of its shortcoming, still plays a vital and important role.”

Linear panorama of the Al Defaa neighborhood in Al Ain. Photo by Yasser Elsheshtawy. Courtesy National Pavilion UAE la Biennale di Venezia.   Example of Emirati national houses, also known as sha‘bī houses in Al Maqam, Al Ain. Photo by Yasser Elsheshtawy. Courtesy National Pavilion UAE la Biennale di Venezia.
Linear panorama of the Al Defaa neighborhood in Al Ain. Photo by Yasser Elsheshtawy. Courtesy National Pavilion UAE la Biennale di Venezia.


Yasser Elsheshtawy is Associate Professor of Architecture at the United Arab Emirates University and directs the University’s Urban Research Lab. His scholarship deals with urbanization in developing societies, urban history and environment-behavior studies, with a particular focus on Middle Eastern cities. His writings have appeared in leading international journals, and the books he has authored and edited have become key references on urbanism and architecture in the region.

Housed in the UAE’s permanent pavilion in Venice’s Arsenale – Sale d’Armi – the exhibition will feature historical and technical materials including detailed architectural analysis of a current national house, 1970s photographs by Dutch photographer Gerard Klijn along with images by Emirati photographer Reem Falaknaz. Accompanying these will be a publication containing exhaustive research contextualizing the exhibition, providing a backdrop to the displayed content and featuring essays and academic studies by architects, sociologists, conservators and scholars.

The layout of the exhibition is conceptualized to reflect movement through various scales. Divided into four interwoven sections categorised as History, Neighbourhood, House and Central; It shifts from the regional down to an individual house, laid out on a grid separated by wall panels that draw visitors through the story of the national house.

The Pavilion opens for view on May 28 at the 15th International Architecture Exhibition of la Biennale di Venezia and will exhibit till November 27, 2016. Before the public opening ARCHITECTEM will present from the Preview days (May 26-27) detailed updates on instagram followed by reviews of the research presented and interviews from the Curator and the team in upcoming posts.

The National Pavilion UAE – la Biennale di Venezia is commissioned by the Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation, and supported by the UAE Ministry of Culture and Knowledge Development.

 

Sources:

The National Pavilion of UAE

¹ Pritzker prize and ELEMENTAL

² Exhibition Catalogue; Transformations: The Emirati National House

 

 

 

 

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